Spring Break in Belize: Exploring Caribbean biogeography

Five students are spending their spring break in San Pedro, Belize, Central America, together with their professor Dr. Amy Berger. This week-long trip is the primary component for their “Caribbean Biogeography” class. While there, the students are spending time investigating the northern hemisphere’s largest barrier reef system. They will also have an opportunity to see coastal and jungle environments. Follow the students’ experiences, in their own words.

DAY SEVEN (March 8)
Kelly Peterson, junior Environmental Science and Sustainability major with Watershed Science specialization

Kelly Peterson Belize blog 3-24

We started today by having breakfast and jumping on a speed boat to head to the mainland. It was a little windy, so we all got splashed a lot on the journey. Once we reached shore, we rode upriver through an estuary where we saw red mangroves, banana orchids, snake cacti, and part of a manatee! Red mangroves are salt tolerant and they protect the shore from erosion. 

We finally docked at a small town called Bomba, where we loaded into an old school bus for the trip to the Altun Ha Mayan temples. We went through about four villages on the drive there, where we saw the different styles of houses in the area. Wooden houses are built on stilts for airflow and to keep critters out. Concrete homes are on the ground. All are painted bright colors. 

We arrived at the site and went into the welcome center, where we learned some background information about the Mayan culture and the temples we were about to see from our tour guide, Miss Anna. The site, Altun Ha, was a medium-sized religious city in existence from approximately 300 B.C.E. to 1500 C.E., and built near a spring-fed reservoir. We learned that the main forms of currency for the Maya were jade, pelts, honey, gold, and chert tools. There are four main temples centered around what was then a market plaza. The temples represented the sun, the night, maize (also representing earth), and water. We learned that the pyramids are not hollow inside, but each “step” is an individual platform, which has the previous priest buried inside of it. The night and sun temples were uncovered and preserved so we were able to climb to the tops of them–about 50 feet above the plaza! After our climbs, we walked through the jungle to the reservoir, where the Mayans collected fresh water and mined for materials. 

Our lunch was served at a small outdoor café outside the main archaeological site. We also looked around at the vendors before getting back on the bus and making the return trip back to TREC. We all got changed to go out to dinner at a restaurant in town! We had ceviche appetizers and many of us chose fresh fish for dinner. After we finished eating, we did some last-minute tourist activities before ending our last night with ice cream and a night swim at the pool!

Our last look came the next morning before the long journey home–a trip back to the dock for one final sunrise over the ocean.
—    by Haley Hoehn, senior Environmental Science and Sustainability major 

Today we woke up tired from our long day yesterday. That tiredness, however, quickly changed to excitement after our briefing on today's activities.

Our first snorkeling destination was Shark-Ray Alley, which is part of a marine protected area. As soon as we pulled up and the engines to our boat cut off, the nurse sharks came looking for some food. They were fed some sardines from the boat as we watched from the water. It was a sight to be seen! We then proceeded to swim around the reef in which we saw more live coral than any of the other previous snorkeling spots. 

Blue Chromis at CG

Blue Chromis at Hol Chan

Our last snorkeling spot of our spring break adventure was Hol Chan. There was a deep channel running through the main reef crest. This spot did not disappoint! While we swam across the channel, groups of eagle rays swam right under us. Their elegant movements captivated us every time they swam by. We were also greeted by nurse sharks and barracuda, large parrotfish and hogfish, and even a couple ballyhoo before we had to swim back to the boat. 

Since there were only two snorkel spots today, we got back early enough to adventure toward town for the best ice cream I have ever had–Paradice Cream, right next to the airport. The sea salt caramel was so good I had to go back for seconds! While it is sad that the snorkeling is done, these memories I gained are going to last a lifetime. 

DAY FIVE (March 6)
—    by Maddie Brillhart, first-year Environmental Science and Sustainability major

Maddie

We started our day with breakfast from Maggie which consisted of fresh watermelon, pineapple, hot rolls, scrambled eggs, and a classic Mayan dish of boiled eggs in a tomato-based sauce. After getting our gear together, we headed to the catamaran Goliath for another day of snorkeling. 

On the boat ride to Coral Gardens, Carlos (one of our guides) helped me brush up on my Spanish. Once we arrived, we hopped in the water and immediately saw a nurse shark. After a little more swimming we saw a green turtle that came up to Livi and I to say “hello.” Next, we loaded back onto the boat for a ride to our next snorkel location–it’s called Tuffy after a boat that wrecked there. We saw a super cool yellow-chained moray eel and a sea cucumber! After looking at the boulder coral for a while, we got back on the Goliath for a quick boat ride back to TREC, where we relaxed for a bit. During our downtime, most of us combed through the many handmade bracelets that Maggie brought out for us to buy. 

After our break, we got back on the boat and while motoring out we got to eat pizza and watch the gorgeous sunset! We were going back to Tuffy again but this time for a night snorkel. Upon arrival, we got our gear on and were handed dive lights so we could see in the water. We saw octopuses, squid, lobsters, and some super cool bioluminescent ostracods and dinoflagellates. It was like a whole different universe in the water. Eventually, we turned all of our lights off in the water to take in the stars and dark water. When we kicked our fins and waved our arms in the water the dinoflagellates (bioluminescent plankton) sparkled in the water which was insane to see. 

After we finished exploring the night reef, we got back on the boat and gazed up at the stars while we waited for the rest of the groups to return. Amy pointed out constellations like Orion’s belt and the Big Dipper to us. Livi and I even saw a shooting star! After a short ride back to TREC, we showered and got ready for a much-needed sleep. Can’t wait for tomorrow’s adventures in Belize!

DAY FOUR (March 5)
—    by Liv Matthews, first-year Environmental Science and Sustainability major

Belize blog Liv Matthews 2024

Our group spent the day on the mainland of Belize! We left bright and early at 5:45 am after eating one of Maggie’s amazing breakfasts and putting on lots of sunscreen. First, we took a long boat ride across the lagoon to the mainland. We saw the sun rise on the way in and went inland via a river surrounded by red mangroves!

After the boat ride, we stopped at a dock and split the time in between petting cats and eating a second breakfast. Then we took a van to where we spent the first part of the day, walking through Belize Zoo. There weren’t very many people there so we got to see lots of animals that were taken to the zoo from being rescued after injury or illegally kept as pets. Our group got lucky and saw lots of animals like jaguars, birds, and monkeys that sometimes don’t want to come to the front of their enclosure when more people are around. My favorites were the spider monkeys and the river otter who put on a very entertaining show for us with their somersaults and chittering.

After the zoo we went cave tubing! We had a delicious lunch at a small restaurant nearby and then hiked a long and scenic trail to the caves, carrying our helmets and inner-tubes. We saw lots of cool plants and trees along the way and our guide did a nice job of telling us all the myths and medicines about them.

The pictures of the caves seriously don’t do them justice. It all looked so cool as we floated along the water through the caves, looking at shapes and structures that were there. The cave is mostly made of limestone, and you could see the sparkles of crystals every once in a while. 
There were lots of small insect bats along the top of the cave too, not to mention it was a nice break from the heat!

Our guide pointed out tons of history and evidence from the Mayans as well; it felt like a time capsule put around a lazy river. The drive there and back took some time, but it was nice to see how people live here just by driving through and looking at the sights.

The day ended with a long, bumpy speedboat ride back to the island, Ambergris Caye. I’m still upset that I didn’t get to see any dolphins … maybe tomorrow? Once we got back, we spent the evening playing euchre and eating dinner that Maggie made! Overall, the day was awesome and it was a nice change of scenery after spending the previous days snorkeling!

DAY THREE (March 4)
—    by Haley Hoehn, senior Environmental Science and Sustainability major

Belize blog day 3 2024 angel fish

To start off our second full day in Belize, we hydrated, ate, and put on tons of sunscreen as we were looking forward to a long day. After over an hour on the boat, we finally arrived at our first destination, Mexico Rocks, which is a marine-protected area. We saw many amazing creatures including some humongous black grouper, Caribbean lobsters, and green turtles. I particularly liked the turtle which seemed to follow me to take a breath at the surface.

After seeing all of those fantastic creatures, we took a fairly short boat ride to an underwater cave. Our guides, Carlos and Julius, showed their underwater skills as they dove to the opening of the cave. Very few of us could even come close to the depths they reached! When they surfaced, they told us the kinds of fish we were seeing–spade fish, grunts, and a cubara snapper.

Our final location was a buddy snorkel at Playa Blanca, which was many people's favorite of the day. It was a fairly shallow location, making it even more crazy when some of the many southern stingrays would swim right under you. People call this area Ray Alley for a reason! They were everywhere! When the nurse shark came swimming by, you could feel their presence. While they are docile and shy, I would be lying if I said my heart didn't jump a little when it swam toward me.

After a tiring day, it was nice to sit down and eat some amazing fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and rolls made by the cook, Maggie. It was a fantastic way to end the day!

DAY TWO (March 3)
—    by Kelly Peterson, junior Environmental Science and Sustainability major with Watershed Science specialization

Today started with getting ready to go out and do our first day of snorkeling! After putting on half a bottle of sunscreen, we had a great breakfast made by Maggie at 8 a.m. We walked a couple of blocks to board the boat Goliath to head out to our first snorkel spot, Pillar Coral. After getting our gear on, we jumped off the back of the boat into water that had turtle and manatee grass. With the water being so clear, you could see everything on the ocean floor. We swam to some of the first corals, which all had fish and other critters hanging out by them!

The Pillar Coral is grouped in patches that then help to support other ocean life. Our guide, Maureen, found a conch shell with the sea snail still living in it! Swimming around the coral we saw other soft coral, plants, and sea sponges that were growing on or around them. In almost all of the coral, there were fish and long-spined black sea urchins – which are as scary as they sound. I was surprised that most of the fish didn’t swim away but mostly just ignored us, with the occasional feisty bluehead wrasse that charged at us. Between some of the pillar coral was brain coral, which is a hard yellow coral that looks like a brain. I think I was most excited to get to see a puffer fish swimming between two pillar coral. After exploring this area, we headed back to Goliath to have lunch and drive to our next site. While on the boat taking a break and having lunch, we saw two eagle rays, a sea turtle, and a nurse shark!

belize blog day 2 porcupine fish

Our second site for the day was Tres Cocos (Three Coconut Trees), which we got to explore with Dr. Ken as a guide. We started by swimming across more turtle and manatee grass to reach the elkhorn coral. When swimming across the grass, we could see circles of grazed grass where the sea turtles were eating. The elkhorn coral in this area was more sporadically and more densely packed than the previous site. We could see all the different wildlife living in the coral framework, including wrasse, grunts, parrotfish, and burrfish. My favorite type of coral we saw was the finger coral, which can be a bright purple/blue color. Our guide picked up a moving conch shell to show us the current inhabitant, a hermit crab, who partially came out of the shell when he was taken out of the water.

The best part of this journey was getting to see two stingrays swim under us as we snorkeled! Before turning around to head back to the boat, we saw a nurse shark that was hiding under a cluster of coral. He was feeling shy and did not come out to see us. While heading back to the boat we were able to see more of the reef and wildlife, and the patterns that they formed in the water. Once we made it back to land, some of us went into town to walk around before heading back for dinner. We ended the night with a great dinner made by Maggie and playing some card games. 

DAY ONE (March 2)
—    by Simon Yochheim, senior Environmental Science and Sustainability major

Our trip started with a long travel day. We began at 2 in the morning, where we all met by Gillmor Science Hall to load up into the van and head to the Columbus airport. The drive went very smoothly, and because I was riding up front, I had to keep an eye for wandering deer who were trying to cross the road as we were driving. The Columbus airport is much smaller than the Cleveland airport and we had little problem with crowds because it was so early in the morning. On our first flight to Atlanta, I found out the hard way that Delta’s rows are tighter than Southwest Airlines (which we flew on last year’s trip) and even though I had the aisle seat, I was still very cramped and uncomfortable. The Atlanta airport was much bigger and had a lot more people in it than I thought it would, but we were able to get to our new boarding area without a hitch.

Unfortunately, at this point, my zero hours of sleep was starting to catch up to me. I did manage to catch some sleep here and there on the longer ride to Belize City but it wasn’t much and I was still very tired. I was able to recover a little bit once I saw that we were landing soon and I was getting excited that we were finally here.

The temperature and humidity hit me as soon as I walked out of the plane. I was expecting a difference in the temperature when we landed but it still took me by surprise once we walked out. It was about 40 degrees with a cold rain when we left Ohio. That was by 87 degrees and a lot of humidity which pushed it closer to 90 degrees. We passed through customs to get to a smaller commercial plane that would fly us to our island. The tiny plane didn’t have much height to it and I basically had to crawl to my seat. The ride to the island was very bumpy and extremely hot but it was very cool to look out the window and look in the clear water to see if we could see any wildlife.

Belize blog Day 1 2024

Once we landed, we grabbed our luggage and caught a ride to our place, which was very well hidden. I would’ve missed it if I was driving. After we unloaded our luggage, we were finally able to chill and get some good food. We claimed our rooms, did some exploring around our new home for the week and got into the pool to try out our snorkeling gear to make sure everything was in order. Finally, at the end of the day, we were served a very good chicken dinner with rice and beans on the side which was very much needed. We ended the night with a small lecture on what was going to happen throughout the week and some ground rules to keep us in check while we stay here. Looking forward to tomorrow!

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